Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Braised Beef Shanks

You may have read once before when I wrote about the steep rise in the price of what were once called “cheap cuts,” those less desirable pieces of beef whose magic is revealed only after a long, slow, flavorful braise. Let’s face it, everything has gone up in price. And I know my profession is somewhat to blame since the demand for these cuts has been driven by a new generation of chefs looking for menu offerings beyond the all-too-familiar steak.
But there is a slightly not-so-expensive alternative, the beef shank.
This cut is becoming more familiar in the meat section. They often get suggested as being used for soup, but you’d be missing something. They might be labeled as either "shanks" or "shins (shin could refer to the fore shank). Whichever way it may be labeled won’t make a difference in the end product
The most well known preparation of beef shanks is osso buco, the Italian classic that uses veal, not beef, shanks. After the long braise, you’d be hard pressed to tell the difference and I doubt you’d care.
I used two beef shanks for the two of us, two big pieces cut crosswise like something out of a Flintstones fantasy. Each shank weighed about a pound which is enough for four servings, or for us, two meals.
I like to use a combination of red wine and port for braising. I like the sweet flavor that port imparts. If you use port, make sure it’s the inexpensive variety, not the one you might pull out to drink after dinner.  You could use just red wine or even a white wine, the traditional choice for osso buco.
I served this with a gorgonzola risotto. (“So why no recipe?” More on that later.*) Risotto is often the traditional accompaniment to osso buco in Northern Italy. I got the gorgonzola idea inspired by the rich and delicious gorgonzola gnocchi I once had with the osso buco cooked by my friend chef John Bruno at his place Ristorante Toscano.
You can serve it with whatever you desire.
I served the shanks with the meat taken off the bone since the two shanks had enough meat for four servings. You don’t have to. It all depends on the size of the shanks you get, how "restauranty" you want to be in your presentation or just how much of a Flinstones mood you’re in at the time.

Braised Beef Shanks
Like any braised dish, this can be made a few days ahead and kept in the refrigerator until needed where it will get even better.
Tying the shanks with a piece of kitchen twine around the outside will help the shanks maintain their shape while cooking.

2 beef shanks
1 cup diced onion
2 carrots, sliced into ½” pieces
1 rib celery, sliced in half lengthwise, then cut crosswise into ½” pieces
1 to 2 cloves garlic, minced
1 Tablespoon tomato paste
1 Tablespoon all purpose flour
½ cup red wine
½ cup port
6 to 8 sprigs fresh thyme, tied in a bundle
1 cup beef or chicken stock
Salt and ground black pepper
Olive oil, for cooking
1. Heat oven to 300 degrees. Pat the beef shanks dry with paper towels. Tie a piece of kitchen twine around the outside edge of each shank. Season both sides of the shanks with salt and pepper. Place a 6 quart Dutch oven onto the stove over high heat. When the pot is hot, swirl 2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil into the pot. Place the shanks into the pot; depending on the size of the shanks, you might have to brown them one at a time. Cook the shanks for 3 to 4 minutes until nicely browned. Turn and brown the shanks on the other side. Remove the shanks from the pot to a plate and let the pan cool down slightly.
2. Place the pot back over medium-high heat. Swirl about 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pot and add the onions/carrots/celery mixture. Stir to loosen the brown bits on the bottom of the pot. Season the vegetables with some salt and pepper. Cook for about 3 to 4 minutes to soften the onions. Push the vegetables to the side of the pot and add the garlic; cook the garlic until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir the garlic into the vegetables and push them aside again. Add the tomato paste to the pan and stir, cooking to toast the tomato paste, about 30 seconds. Add the flour and stir it into the vegetables allowing it to cook for another 30 seconds. Pour the wine (and port) into the pot, stir and cook for a minute or so, then add the bundle of thyme and the stock to the pot and stir together. Return the shanks to the pot and nestle them in among the vegetables and liquid. Cover the pot and bring it to a boil. Place the pot into the oven and cook for 2 ½  to 3 hours. The meat should be fork- tender and falling off the bones. Remove from the oven. (If you are putting the shanks away to use on another day, let cool and store the shanks along with the vegetables and cooking liquid in the refrigerator. When you reheat the shanks you might want to brighten the flavor of the sauce with a splash of wine). When cool enough to handle, remove the meat from the bone if you so desire. Taste for seasoning and serve with the sauce and vegetables.

*About the gorgonzola risotto- It's’s a risotto finished with pieces of gorgonzola cheese stirred in at the end. Nothing difficult there. But I am saving a new, easier technique for risotto for a future post. I figured that including it now would only drag this out longer than necessary and it really isn’t essential to enjoying the shanks. So get braising and we’ll catch up later.

**And yes, you can make this in a crock pot. It helps if you have one that allows you to brown the meat. If not, you could do the initial cooking steps in a pot then transfer it to your crock pot.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Kale Sprouts

                                                                                                                                           (photo credit: Tozer Seeds)


We’ve all heard or read a lot about kale or Brussels sprouts and how good they are for you. I’m just as guilty for the word count on these two veg. Now imagine that there could be a love child of these two ultra popular brassicas. It’s as if someone thought, “Hey, kale and Brussels sprouts are really hot. What if we crossbreed them?” What you would get is the kale sprout. But it took 15 years of hybrid research, so that they have arrived at the peak of kale and Brussels sprouts popularity is sheer luck.  It was all the hard work of Tozer Seeds in England.
Kale Sprouts are a cross between red Russian kale and Brussels sprouts and like Brussels sprouts, they grow on tall, upright plants. One grower remarked that kale sprouts can be tricky to grow and that they take twice as long to mature than most other crops.
Now it gets a little confusing.
In England, Tozer Seeds sells their hybrid under the trademarked name of “Kalettes.” In the United States, the seeds are marketed as “Flower Sprouts.” In grocery stores they are sold labeled as “Lollipop Sprouts,”  “Lollipop Kale,” or “Kale Sprouts,” which is how they are sold at Trader Joe’s where I found them.  But they’re all the same thing.
If you are someone who is put off by kale or Brussels sprouts for a personal reason, you will probably prefer Kale Sprouts.  They are milder in flavor than either of the “parent” plants and there is no bad way to cook them.
Since they are tender, they can be chopped and served raw in a salad, perhaps with some seasonal orange segments (Cara Cara anyone?), sliced red onion, and a toasted nut of your choice. And go ahead and add a little cheese, too. Roasting kale sprouts takes no time: slice them in half lengthwise, toss them with some olive oil, salt and ground black pepper, spread them onto a baking sheet and roast them a 425 degree oven for about 5 minutes until slightly charred and crispy.
Kale sprouts can be blanched then sautéed, alone or mixed with other vegetables. And if you are interested in the numbers, 3 ½ ounces of kale sprouts contain twice the amount of vitamin B6 and twice the vitamin C of a similar amount of Brussels sprouts. They are also high in vitamin E.
The other night I sautéed some kale sprouts and served them over salmon along with Cheddar potato cakes. Wonderful.

Sautéed Kale Sprouts with Pancetta and Lemon
For two servings
I used prepackaged diced pancetta. You could also use diced bacon or prociutto, too. Vegetarians, you can omit the tasty meat part.

4 ounces kale sprouts
2 Tablespoons diced pancetta
1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
red pepper flakes, to taste (optional)
olive oil, for cooking
salt and ground black pepper
juice of half a lemon
1 Tablespoon unsalted butter, optional

1. Rinse the kale sprouts in a colander under cold water and let drain. Trim off the bottom of the sprouts and set aside.
2. Place a sauté pan filled with ½ “ of lightly salted water onto the stove over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, add the sprouts, cover and let cook for 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the stove and drain the kale sprouts into a colander. Refresh the sprouts under cold running water until cool. Set aside.
3. Return the sauté pan to the stove over medium-high heat. When the pan is hot, swirl in about 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add the pancetta and cook the pancetta (or bacon) until it is brown and crispy. Reduce the heat and add the garlic and hot pepper flakes to the pan and cook until the garlic is fragrant, about 30 seconds. (Since the pan is hot, watch the garlic so it doesn’t brown or burn. You might need to pull he pan off the heat). When the garlic is fragrant, return the kale sprouts to the pan, season with salt and ground black pepper, and stir together. Right before serving add the lemon juice, and the butter, mixing everything together. Easy. Simple. Delicious.
(When I served the kale sprouts with the salmon, I added a little extra olive oil so that the liquid in the pan with the sprouts became a simple sauce to spoon over the fish).

Thursday, February 5, 2015

The Rice Bowl Project: Coconut Curry Cauliflower

                         “We eat rice and worship our ancestors”-old Charleston saying

When Siddhartha (the future Buddha) set off on his journey seeking enlightenment, at one point he attempted a path of asceticism that led him to starvation and almost certain death. One day toward the end of this six-year journey he allowed his mind drift back to his boyhood. He felt a sense of pure joy and with it the realization he could not sustain this joy if he didn’t eat. And at that moment a young woman of the village appeared offering him a bowl of rice gruel, saying, “Here, eat.” His was a decision not toward death but toward living.
Humans love stories. Whether you choose to believe it or not isn’t important. It’s the lesson.
To eat is the daily reaffirming of living.
Rice is the most widely eaten staple food in the world, providing over one-fifth of human daily caloric intake. It’s humble. It’s everyday. Combined with a small amount vegetables and perhaps some type of protein, it forms a substantial meal, a meal for many throughout the world. Rice can also be elevated into a risotto or a paella or a jambalaya.  But it’s still rice.

As for rice in America, it certainly didn’t come over with we Northern Europeans; we had no rice culture.
The story they would like you to believe is that rice arrived in America, in South Carolina, in 1685 on board a ship from Madagascar that had put in for repairs. This is still the story put forth by the Carolina rice company today although most scholars have found little evidence for this claim.
Rice cultivation in the United States actually goes back to 1675 with Italian immigrants planting rice in South Carolina, followed by French Huguenots who brought with them rice from Spain. By 1710 it was the work of African slaves.
Plantation owners advertised for slaves specifically from West Africa who would be familiar with the planting and harvesting rice. It was a situation that worked for the plantation owners until the end of the Civil War. Emancipation put a slow end to rice farming which dwindled away and disappeared in South Carolina by the early 1900’s. The planting, harvesting, threshing, and hulling of the rice crop, all of which was done by hand, is hard work. It wasn’t hard to make the decision to walk away and on to a new life up North.

Rice was (and remains) an important part of Southern culture. It’s a cultural heritage. Rice had been its leading export for years and it formed an important part of Southern cuisine, from plain boiled and buttered rice or the every-Monday red beans and rice of New Orleans.
photo credit-UC Davis

Recently I set off on a project of rice-centered dinners, not as an attempt of self-imposed austerity but simply to use what I have on hand and using these limitations to allow myself to be inspired. While they are presented as recipes, they are open for personal interpretation, to your own inspiration if you will. Except for techniques, you can substitute ingredients. They need not be followed exactly as put forth. I know that I may have some ingredients on hand that you do not. That comes from my long association with cooking. For the recipes I have avoided buying too much of what I don’t have on hand already. This is the first of many.
Here. Eat.
                                      photo credit: Panyaden School, Chiang Mai, Thailand*

Coconut Curry Cauliflower
I had made this one night with chicken and decided to make it a second time sans chicken, using the remaining cauliflower. You could just as easily sauté some pieces of chicken breast and cut down on the amount of cauliflower but honesty, you won’t miss this chicken if you don’t.
I used a store-bought curry powder; I know this isn’t the typical approach of many Indian cooks. Even though I have most of the ingredients found in curry powder, a store bought blend is the easiest for most people to find and use. The heat level varies from blend to blend, so my measurement might not be the same as yours. I used pistachios but any other unsalted nut  (cashews, almonds, even peanuts) will work.

2 cups cauliflower florets, cut into pieces
½ onion, diced (about 2/3 cup)
½ medium red bell pepper, sliced lengthwise into ¼” thick strips
½ Tablespoon Minced garlic
½ Tablespoon fresh ginger, either grated or finely chopped
1 Tablespoon curry powder
1 cup coconut milk
2 cups cooked rice
¼ cup unsalted pistachios
2 Tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro, for garnish
salt and ground black pepper
olive oil, for cooking
1. Place a small sauté pan over medium-high heat. When warm, add the nuts and toast the nuts until lightly browned. Remove the pan from the heat and empty the nuts onto a plate to cool. Set aside.
2. Place a large sauté with ½ cup lightly salted water onto the stove over high heat. When the water comes to a boil, add the cauliflower and cook until the cauliflower just starts to become tender, about 2 to 3 minutes, depending on their size. Remove from heat, drain the cauliflower into a colander, and refresh under cold running water. Set aside.
3. Return the pan to the stove over medium-high heat. When hot, swirl in about 2 tablespoons olive oil into the pan. Add the onions and red bell pepper. Cook to begin softening the vegetables, about 3 to 4 minutes; if they take on a little color, it’s fine. Adjust heat as needed.
4. Add the garlic and ginger to the pan and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds, then stir the garlic/ginger into the peppers and onions. Push the vegetables aside and add the curry powder. Let the curry powder toast for a few seconds then mix it into the vegetables. Add the coconut milk and stir together. Return the cauliflower to the pan; if the coconut milk appears too thick, you can thin it with a little water. Season to taste with some salt and ground black pepper. Cover the pan, lower the heat and simmer gently until the cauliflower is tender.
5. While the vegetables are cooking, place the rice into a strainer over a pot of simmering water to steam; make sure the water level in the pot doesn’t touch the strainer.
6. To serve, add the nuts to the rice and stir together. Divide the rice between two plates. Divide the vegetables between the two plates, spooning the vegetables and sauce over the rice. Garnish each portion with some chopped cilantro and serve.

A Quick Rice Tutorial
Making rice is incredibly easy. As one of the world's basic foods, it has to be although some have difficulties with it so here is a quick tutorial.
First, if you're going to make rice, make more than you need so you will have leftover rice to use a day or two later. Rice is usually a 2:1 ratio, two parts water to one part rice (unless otherwise directed by the package directions). 1 cup of rice cooked in two cups of water will yield 4 cups of rice. You see why it feeds the world; so little makes so much.
I make brown rice varieties which take longer to cook. I always use a timer: as when I make risotto, the timer keeps track of the cooking so you don't have to. Lightly salt the boiling water, add the rice, stir, and cover the pot. Lower the heat to low so the rice gently simmers. Brown rice takes about 45 minutes to cook, so I set the timer for 35 minutes. After 35 minutes have passed, I check the rice. By tilting the pan, you can see how much water is left in the pan, which means additional cooking time. I usually let the rice cook for another five minutes, then check the rice again. By this time, the water should been absorbed. Turn off the heat and leave the rice covered to let the rice steam and absorb what little water is left. Do not stir the rice, in fact don't stir the rice at all while it's cooking. After the rice has sat for another ten minutes (or longer), gently fluff the rice with a fork. The rice should separate into individual grains. If it doesn't, gently heat the rice for a few more minutes or put the rice into a strainer and steam the rice over a pot of simmering water to finish.

*The Panyaden School in North Thailand integrates Buddhist values with its modern curriculum. To read about their rice planting adventure: